Zephaniah’s prophecy has been a difficult one to swallow. Bruckner writes of this prophecy as a “radical message of destruction” and “a word of severe warning against God’s chosen.” He describes it as a prophecy of “clouds and blackness” and concludes that Zephaniah’s words are “perhaps the most graphic description of his anger in the Bible.”
In chapter 1, hope was seen to be hiding. There appeared to be no escape from God’s fierce anger against his people’s sin. In chapter 2, hope whispered. In the midst of the darkness, there was a glimmer of hope that a remnant might gather in humility before Yahweh to experience his grace. In chapter 3, hope no longer whispers but absolutely screams.
The chapter opens with a renewed focus on God’s people. Chapter 1 had focused particularly on the sins of Judah, while chapter 2 had expanded to address the arrogance of those opposed to Judah. Chapter 3 focuses again on Jerusalem, “the oppressing city” who “listens to no voice” and “accepts no correction.” The Lord rebukes Jerusalem’s officials (v. 3), judges (v. 3), prophets (v. 4), and priests (v. 4)—the entire leadership structure. Though he offered the opportunity for forgiveness, “they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” Because of this, Yahweh would “pour out upon them [his] indignation, all [his] burning anger; for in the fire of [his] jealousy all the earth shall be consumed” (v. 8). The darkness of the prophecy persists.
But suddenly, the latter half of the chapter screams hope. Verses 9–20 highlight God’s commitment to purify and restore his people. So stark is the promise of hope that some have described 3:17 as the Old Testament John 3:16: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Following the sheer terror of the first two-and-a-half chapters, the latter half of chapter 3 screams hope in at least four ways.
First, hope screams of forgiveness. “On that day you will not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst the proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain” (v. 11). The promise of no shame because of their sins implies forgiveness. Zephaniah has spoken vocally against the arrogance of the people, but now he promises that God will remove that arrogance and restore his people to a place of favour.
Second, hope screams of restoration. For all the language of universal destruction, Yahweh here promises: “I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly” (v. 12). A remnant would remain, which would carry the hope of a restored nation with restored favour. This restoration would involve the removal of Judah’s punishment (v. 15).
Third, hope screams of protection. “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil…. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (vv. 15–17). Reading the opening two chapters it becomes clear that Judah had a great deal to fear, but forgiveness and restoration would bring with them God’s promise of protection.
Fourth, hope screams of favour. Verses 18–20 differ from the rest of the verses in this section in that Yahweh speaks in them in the first person. Six times in these verses, we read the phrase “I will.” In each instance, the Lord assures his people of his renewed favour. Forgiveness and restoration invite not only divine protection but, more importantly, divine favour. Once again, God’s people would become his people.
If you have found it difficult to wrap your mind around the opening chapters of Zephaniah, the latter half of this chapter may come as a relief to you. As you reflect on Zephaniah 3 this morning, rejoice that forgiveness, restoration, protection, and favour are available for those who find their rest in the Lord.